Chaon Cross stars as Hilary in "The Hard Problem" at Court Theatre.
Next time you’re accused of being selfish, try this Stoppardian rejoinder: Darwin really doesn’t do sentimental.
Or try putting it another way: We’re all hard-wired to be out for ourselves. Some of us are just cleverer than others when it comes to the concealing thereof.
If you want to be unpopular, you might point out that a mother’s love for her child merely is a way to take care of her gene pool, and involves a complex collision of cost-and-benefit equations on the part of both parties. Or you might observe how all we deft practitioners of our current Darwinian reality have learned to cloak our self-promotion on social media. We’ve evolved into excellent constructors of Facebook posts that seem to praise the others on our team, or declare allyship with another team, or that seem to involve humble self-deprecation, but that really, when you get down to the science of it all, mostly promote our own activities, burnish our own progressive bona fides, and thus increase our own chances of survival. And you know what? We can’t help it.
The science behind all that stuff is at the core of "The Hard Problem," the first new, full-length Tom Stoppard play in nine years, now in its first Chicago production under the direction of Charles Newell, a longtime Stoppard specialist and a director with a formidable track record, very much continued here, of pumping more heart into Stoppard’s famously cerebral works for the stage.
"The Hard Problem," which was first seen at London’s National Theatre as the swan song of artistic director Nicholas Hytner, is not fully the equal of such prismatic Stoppard works as "Arcadia" and "Rock ‘N’ Roll," but then those are among the best plays of the last quarter-century. Sitting in the house at Court Theatre on Saturday night, I also felt something new in decades of watching this man’s great plays: a sense of Stoppard’s age and the challenges he now faces in chronicling with veracity the ideas, careers and tortured sexual negotiations of the mostly 20- and 30-something academics and intellectuals who make up the characters in a play dealing with the intersection of biology, psychology, neuroscience, venture capital and (shudder) philosophy.
If you look at the piece through the lens of contemporary thinking about, say, science, diversity and gender, you may find some issues. In a play about science, it is the central character, an accomplished female scientist named Hilary (Chaon Cross), who is the least comfortable with scientific solutions to things, craving a role for the softer art of the more nurturing humanities. There are moments when this feels unfair both to hard-nosed women boffins, of which there are many who trust the poet not at all, and to scientific men who care about art and even say their prayers.
Still, if (like me) you spend a lot of your life watching early-career work that wants to make a mostly binary point, Stoppard’s mature mastery of why we go to the theater and what we hope to find there, and his lifelong dedication to the belief that the main job of an artist is to point out that our world is more complicated than we first thought when the curtain went down, is a blessed relief. Not that he would likely much approve of such theistic terminology. Then again, maybe now he would.
The "hard problem" in the title is, in essence, the ongoing scientific effort to solve the theory of consciousness. Stoppard put this play together after first working on two separate projects — one dealing with the aforementioned knotty problem and the other with the machinations of venture capital and high finance. He ended up putting the two together, which has the added benefit of providing a cautionary tale, not lost at a theater on the campus of the University of Chicago, about the perils of letting Darwinian billionaires meddle in science, replacing academic checks and balances with the propagation of data points minable for profit.
After a sexual relationship with her perfidious but, of course, helpful (in the Darwinian sense) university tutor, Spike (Jurgen Hooper), Hilary ends up with a job at the Krohl Institute, a think tank that combines finance and scientific inquiry run by the mostly amoral Jerry (Nathan Hosner). Here, the play’s central figure tries to combine her unease at the widespread scientific dismissal of feeling — which you might also call love — with her actual practice of good science. As in all academic settings, though, Darwinian principals are in play, as Hilary confronts whether she should help her maverick and potentially dangerous assistant Bo (Emjoy Gavino) even at some cost to herself, and Stoppard explores the questions of whether the employees (Brian McCaskill, Owais Ahmed, Kate Fry, Celeste M. Cooper) are fated to try to destroy each other, or whether altruism can prevail.
There are several very compelling performances including from Hooper, shrewdly cast against type, as Spike; Fry, who offers some caustic comic relief; and Hosner, who avoids most of the traps posited by your typical billionaire. But the moving Cross is Newell’s muse here, as she was in his radical 2013 take on David Auburn’s "Proof," and the director places even more at the center of the work than the script demands. These transitions and forays into Hilary’s internal psyche mostly work (the revealing landscape of the mind is designed by John Culbert and lit without escape by Keith Parham), and they help center a play that is very much an exploration of whether such a center exists.
To make his point, Stoppard has to make scientific purists like Spike angrier at the mention of God than I generally have found such folks to be (they generally smile and say it is not what they do). But then how else are you going to explore how much it should worry us that a computer losing to a human in chess does not feel the sting of pain?
No one, truly, does complexity quite like Stoppard, and Newell’s cast has, most crucially, imbued that fundamental requirement of being in such a piece. And when everyone is manifest complex, the ideas fly at you fast and furiously, in the most intellectually exciting way.
"The Hard Problem" lays out the scientific explanations of the very deepest issues of our human existence, but it’s also broad-shouldered enough to admit that most extant scientific theories of consciousness are no more credible than divine intervention. What you are watching here is a late-career master who is approaching the end of a professional life dedicated to the propagation of ideas, and refusing to move lock, stock with progressive peers, who now is wondering aloud, with less and less of a filter, about caring for other people. I think he’s probably thinking about how we need love when we shuffle off our mortal coils, since love is all we have to leave.
Well — to bring Stephen Sondheim into this — you can always leave children and art. I don’t think Stoppard ever would come out and say that, although it is plenty Darwinian, when you think about it.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
When: Through April 9
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $48-$68 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org
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